the author wearing a sleep monitoring device
All photos: Yasmin Nickel 
Life

How I Trained Myself to Become a Morning Person

It's getting myself out of bed that's the real problem. Can I change?
11 May 2020, 8:00am

This article was originally published on VICE Germany.

It's not that I don't want to get up, I just can't. Mornings are actually when I'm most productive, when I knock out work with ease. Mornings are when I can sit happily in my armchair with a coffee and know that I have a jump-start on the day. The only problem is that I hardly ever experience this feeling, because I'm usually fast asleep.

I envy the people who spring out of bed at the first sound of their alarm – and I'm willing to give my all to be one of them. So began my experiment: could I learn to wake up on time?

'You snooze, you lose'

The website Mind Hack recommended I move my alarm clock out of reach from my bed. But I'd just sleepwalk over to it and turn it off. "Leave the curtains open," suggested another site. It's really cute they assume I haven't already tried this. Same goes for: "Make an appointment early in the morning." My friends have many war stories of calling me from the cafe before I arrive half an hour late, teeth unbrushed and hair a mess.

The advice has a common thread: "You snooze, you lose." So, I calculated how many hours of life I've already lost. One hour of kip a day is 365 hours a year – or nine weeks of work.

Personal growth guru Steve Pavlina claims willpower alone isn’t enough to get us out of bed; we need to train ourselves. According to Pavlina, I can condition myself by going to bed during the day as I would at night. So, in the middle of the day, I brushed my teeth, put on my pyjamas, shut the curtains and closed my eyes. My alarm went off ten minutes later, and I followed the process that, Pavlina says, needs to become automatic: as soon as it rang, I switched it off, stretched out, sat up and got up. I repeated this several times.

Training myself to do something that toddlers can do felt stupid, but I did it anyway. The next evening, I set my alarm clock for 6.30AM, and a miracle happened: the next day, I got up. On day two, I even went running in the morning.

The author on a historic morning run.

But on day three I woke up to no alarm. I asked my housemate what had happened, and he told me I'd been hitting the snooze button so often that he'd just come into my room and turned the alarm off. Conditioning worked, but only for two days.

A sleep tracking app

I'm not the only one on the gruelling path to self-optimisation, and plenty of companies are trying to cash in. Sleep apps track your sleeping patterns and wake you during a "light" sleep phase, ostensibly making it easier to get up.

After downloading one to my phone, I set a time window for when I wanted to be woken up. I was sceptical, and all the graphs and numbers were giving me a weird surveillance vibe. I'm no tin-foil hatter when it comes to data protection, but this might be too intrusive.

The next morning I woke up to the app's gentle tones. But I didn't get up. The app showed me how many times I'd hit snoozed: 13. Back to the drawing board.

Time for a professional

Professor Ingo Fietze is a sleep specialist at the Charité hospital in Berlin. When I called him and explained my woes, he asked how old I am. I told him I'm 26.

"Between the ages of 20 and 30, you should sleep between eight and nine hours," he said. "Everything else is pathological." Pathological. I often get ten hours, easy.

Professor Fietze told me sleep habits are all in the genes. And then, he robbed me of all hope: "You can turn an owl into a lark, or a late-riser into an early bird. But you can never turn a long sleeper into a short sleeper, or vice versa."

He suggested I measure my sleep at home with a wearable device, and also use a medical lamp with 10,000 lux to wake myself up. "Bright white light," he said. "It's like a bucket of water, but more elegant."

The measuring device sat around my waist, while an oxygen tube in my nose measured my breath. I looked like a a suicide bomber on life support. Unsurprisingly, I didn't sleep well. I did wake up early – but only because the tube slipped out of my nose.

The results showed absolutely nothing. "No abnormalities," said the friendly lady who explained my results when I returned the device. It was not what I wanted to hear.

The lamp of enlightenment?

I put the medical lamp on my bedside table and plugged it in. "See you tomorrow," I said, gently. "Please wake me up."

The next morning, my alarm rang. Over those past few days, I'd actually been snoozing less and even sometimes waking up before my alarm went off. I have no idea why exactly, but figured my body was noticing how hard my brain had been trying.

Still, I just couldn't force myself to get out of bed and switch off the lamp. Bright light, first thing, right in the eyes? No, thanks. Another failure.

Utopia: sleeping as much as I like

A colleague suggested I should speak to her friend Lisa Steinmetz, a sleep researcher living in Freiburg. I asked Steinmetz if she's good at getting out of bed. "Actually, I sleep in every day," she said. If it was editorially acceptable to put the head-exploding emoji here, I would.

"We research sleep, so everyone at my work knows how important it is," she explained. "When I wake up in the morning and realise I'm still tired, I just go back to sleep."

I can't really tell my editor I've missed our morning meeting because I needed more sleep. I could, however, go to a doctor and find out if my need for sleep is actually an illness. I could analyse my sleep cycles and blind myself with a light.

But maybe I'm fine, and just need more sleep than other people. As Professor Fietze would say, you can turn an owl into a lark, but you can't turn a long sleeper into a short sleeper. I know I’m a perfectionist – perhaps my need for sleep is simply an in-built barrier against my desire to self-optimise. "I'm not doing it," my body is telling me. I tried to learn to wake up earlier, but ended up learning that sleep beats self-optimisation.

On a practical level, I know that if I want to get up early in the morning, there's always the option of going to bed earlier. The evening after my experiment ended, I did exactly that – giving myself time for those nine hours I apparently need. When the alarm clock rang, I didn't jump out of bed immediately, but the impossible had happened: I was awake. It was 6AM and I didn't have to wade through the morning fog that usually envelops my head. I'd made it.

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